Starbucks: Sip or Eat at Your Own Risk with Food Allergies

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in Features, Food Allergy, Milk & Egg, News
Published: December 21, 2019
Starbucks does not accommodate food allergies.
Photo: Getty

With 30,000 locations, Starbucks is one of the most ubiquitous chains in the world. Found on city streets, suburban malls and roadside rest stops across America, Starbucks and its green mermaid logo are as recognizable a brand as the Golden Arches or the Nike Swoosh. 

But people with food allergies might be better off laying off the lattes.

Starbucks does not have a corporate policy to accommodate customers with food allergies. For starters, the company does not provide training to baristas on serving customers with food allergies, or on avoiding cross-contact with allergens on equipment such as blenders, steam wands or work surfaces.    

“Starbucks does not have basic procedures and protocols in place to accommodate their customers with food allergies,” notes Paul Antico, founder of the Allergy Eats app and website.

While many customers with food allergies successfully order beverages at Starbucks, they typically need to work one-on-one with helpful baristas. Customers can ask baristas to take specific precautions to avoid cross-contact, such as thoroughly washing the blender pitchers and steam wands used to froth various types of milk.

Individual efforts aside, at a corporate level, Starbucks makes clear they offer no promises to food allergy customers. “The main thing we train our baristas on is how to create that welcoming environment, how to make the beverages and how to make the food we offer. That is their primary role. On top of that we can’t guarantee our products are allergen-free,” Sanja Gould, Starbucks’ spokesperson, told Allergic Living in response to our food allergy questions.  

Man With Nut Allergy Sues Starbucks

In October, Max Scher, a 34-year-old with a severe nut allergy, sued Starbucks for $10,000. Scher says he had to rush to an emergency room in Portland, Oregon, after he ordered a coffee with soy milk but was mistakenly given almond milk. Scher told the Oregonian that he informed staff about his allergy and asked them to be careful. He and his attorney did not respond to requests for comment on the case.

Antico of Allergy Eats isn’t surprised about this alleged mishap. Allergy Eats users regularly rate Starbucks among the lowest performers for food allergy accommodations among the major chains. 

“It seems that Starbucks has decided business is so good, they don’t need to attract the food allergy community,” Antico said. “The choice they have made at the corporate level is, ‘You are just not safe here.’ Cross-contamination is everywhere.”  

In 2018, a decision by Starbucks to stop separating milks into separate blender pitchers, steaming pitchers and shakers caused upset in the food allergy community. Gould says this change was made because labels on pitchers that designated each for a particular type of milk – dairy, soy, coconut and almond – may have been giving customers a false sense of security.

“We removed those stickers to be more transparent about what is actually happening behind the bar,” she said. “It is an environment with shared equipment.”  

In May 2019, Starbucks added another potential source of allergen cross-contact: the cloud macchiato, which is made with egg-white powder.

Missed Opportunity

As the world’s biggest coffee chain and a hangout spot for people of all ages, Antico believes Starbucks is missing a major opportunity to develop a loyal following of people with food allergies. Training baristas and taking steps to protect those with food allergies from cross-contact would be good for people with food allergies, and for Starbucks’ business, he said.

Speaking at a recent food allergy conference, Antico asked a room full of teens with food allergies if they avoid Starbucks because of their allergies. Nearly every hand went up.

“That staggered me,” he said. “Starbucks is a restaurant that says, ‘We can’t serve you.’ There are zero initiatives to get better. It’s just not a priority for them.” 

Gould said that although Starbucks does not have any plans in the works to change the way it accommodates food allergy customers, the company takes customer input seriously. “Customer feedback is incredibly important to us,” she said. “It’s an open dialogue for us to continue to listen for.”

How to Reduce Risks at Starbucks

If you want to be sure to avoid the risk of cross-contact, do not eat or drink at Starbucks. Nearly all Starbucks menu items contain this advisory:

“To our customers with allergies: We openly handle several allergens throughout our stores, including dairy, soy, tree nuts (e.g. almond, coconut, etc.), eggs, wheat and others. While we take precautions to keep ingredients separate, we cannot guarantee that any of our beverages or foods are allergen free as we use shared equipment to store, prepare and serve them. Examples of shared equipment include the espresso machine steam wand, blender and pastry case. Please consult your doctor if you have questions about food allergies, so that you can make the decision that is right for you.”         

Many people with food allergies have made the decision to avoid the chain, to avoid risk. But Starbucks serves 4 million coffee drinks daily. And mixed in among the millions are certainly many people with allergies.

While Allergic Living does not recommend this, if you are going to continue to drink or eat at Starbucks despite the company’s advisory, the following information may help you to reduce the level of risk.

Bakery and Hot Food Items

Starbucks’ online menu provides information on ingredients and gives special notation for any of the eight top food allergens: milk, egg, peanut, wheat, soybean, tree nuts, fish and shellfish.

Risk Level for Food Allergy Customers: High. Many of the products contain allergens such as dairy, eggs and nuts, including pecans, walnuts and almonds. In addition, the products are stored in the same pastry case, handled with the same tongs, and toasted/heated in the same ovens.

The cross-contact warning applies to all baked and hot food items: “We cannot guarantee that any unpackaged products served in our stores are allergen-free because we use shared equipment to store, prepare, and serve them …”

Are there ways to reduce risk? Not really. Even if you find a bakery item that does not contain your allergen, cross-contact remains a risk. 

Starbucks’ Beverages

Barista froths milk.
Photo: Getty

Starbucks’ online menu provides information on ingredients for “handcrafted” coffee, tea and other beverages prepared in the store. The same cross-contact warning label applies.

Another common worry among customers with tree nut allergies is whether flavored coffees or syrups contain nuts. An Allergic Living investigation in 2015 found that nut-flavored syrups used in Starbucks seasonal drinks did not contain nuts. However, Starbucks online menu for nut-flavored coffee drinks does not provide allergen info.

Risk Level for Food Allergy Customers: Unknown. Many people with food allergies say they have ordered beverages at Starbucks without incident. However, while baristas rinse pitchers and steaming wands for each beverage, beverages are made on shared equipment. It’s also relatively easy for a hurried barista to accidentally grab the dairy instead of the soy milk. As well, allergists say food allergies vary by the individual. While one person may not react to cross-contact, another can.

Are there ways to reduce risk? Maybe. You should definitely notify the barista of your allergy. You can ask that they thoroughly wash a pitcher and wand before using, and watch them make your beverage to ensure there are no mix-ups. While many baristas may be happy to oblige, this can be more difficult during busy times. And, as the company says, there are no guarantees.

If you still want to join friends at a Starbucks shop, the best idea is to skip the coffee and purchase a bottled water or safe juice.

Packaged Food Products

Packaged food products come from various manufacturers and are not prepared in the store. The online menu provides ingredients and allergens information on many, but not all, packaged products.

Risk Level for Food Allergy Customers: Unknown. Cross-contact advisories such as “may contain” or “produced on shared equipment with” are voluntary and left up to manufacturers. So while you can read the ingredient label in the store, the manufacturer may or may not provide cross-contact warning labels.

Are there ways to reduce risk? Yes. Stick with products you know or have verified as being allergy-friendly through contacting the manufacturer.

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